Growing Healthy Children and Futures: The First 1,000 Days

Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS

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What can you do in 1,000 days? In Rwanda, you can save a child’s life.

The 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday are critical to shaping the child’s future. Ensuring good nutrition during a child’s first 1,000 days can impact physical and mental growth, as well as the future of entire societies.

For children and infants under age 2, the consequences of malnutrition can be severe and  irreversible. Unfortunately, malnutrition is still a leading cause of death throughout the world.

Despite government efforts, the rate of stunted growth in Rwanda remains high. In 2010 it was 44%—today it’s 38%.

Babies who are malnourished in the womb have a higher risk of dying in infancy. Children whose growth is stunted can have weakened immune systems and be more susceptible to dying from common illnesses like diarrhea or malaria. In addition, they’re less able to perform well in school later in life, and are more likely to face fewer job opportunities as adults.

Odette Mukamurenzi, with daughter Olga, participates in a CRS program that teaches families how to grow and prepare nutritious food, and save money. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS
Odette Mukamurenzi, with daughter Olga, participates in a CRS program that teaches families how to grow and prepare nutritious food, and save money. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS

“You can’t believe the age of the children when you stop in a community and ask their age, and they tell you they are 10,” says Marie-Noelle Senyana-Mottier, country manager of CRS Rwanda. “When you compare their size to your own children at that age, the issue of stunting is very much apparent.”

With funding from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, CRS and our local partners are targeting pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under age 2. By focusing on early intervention, we hope to reduce the stunting rates of children under 5 to 24.5% in 2018.  The program aims to reduce the stunting rates of children under 2 by 5% each year in 10 targeted districts.

“I think this is key because we are helping Rwanda have a better-educated population, a stronger economic population and youth who will be the future of Rwanda,” Marie-Noelle says.

A balanced diet and approach

Odette Mukamurenzi and her husband Deodate Nsengimana are the proud parents of 1-year-old Olga. Their daughter is the center of their world, and they have high expectations for her. They want her to complete school, help her family and country, and be healthy.

Olga has a good start. Odette ate a healthy diet when she was pregnant with Olga and is continuing to learn about nutrition. Odette, along with other mothers in her community, attends cooking demonstrations. They plan the menu for each session and mothers commit to bringing ingredients like water, salt, oil, vegetables or rice. They learn hygiene techniques, and how to cook healthy food for their babies and older children.

Odette has tangible proof that Olga is growing. She takes her daughter to monthly growth monitoring sessions, and her child is thriving. “My baby is only going up, never going down. In 12 months, I am seeing changes,” she says.

“The community has helped me. There are a lot of people taking care of you and your family,” says Odette. “It’s helped me take care of my baby. If I wasn’t in the community, I wouldn’t know how she was growing. I now know how to give her a balanced diet.”

Deodate Nsengimana plays with daughter Olga at their home in Rwanda. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS
Deodate Nsengimana plays with daughter Olga at their home in Rwanda. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for CRS

Balance is important to this program. Fighting malnutrition in children means more than eating good food. That’s why families like Odette and Deodate’s are being taught how to improve their crops.

More than 80% of Rwandans depend on agriculture to survive. CRS and our partners have established farmer field schools, where people learn agricultural techniques that help them grow better crops. Stronger crops mean diet diversity, more food for families and increased incomes.

“I learned that you can have a small farm, but from that small farm you can produce many things,” says Deodate.

“Before we used to just plant a few crops on the farm, but we got lessons on fertilizing,” Odette says. “[We have] so many vegetables now and we can use them when we cook. I have something to eat at my house and I can sell some at the market.”

“The first thing that is very visible is the size of the vegetables that are grown. Cabbages are two and three times bigger,” says Marie-Noelle. “Every crop is a locally available crop. There is nothing that we introduce that is not already available in their communities. They won’t forget these things because they can see the transformation in their lives.”

Growing and saving

The program also focuses on building incomes. Odette is a member of a Savings and Internal Lending Community, or SILC, group. The groups bring people together and encourage them to save money. Odette participates in weekly meetings and has recently taken out a business loan to sell fertilizer and seeds. 

improved nutrition in Rwanda

Odette Mukamurenzi is drying cassava, so it can either be sold as cassava chips for animal feed or processed and sold as a flour in the local market. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

“In the beginning, people don’t even think they are able to start income-generating activities,” says Marie-Noelle. “They start very low, some with a $10 loan, and then they see they are able to produce more with this $10 and reimburse on time with interest.”  

“They are using the surplus income to pay for school fees for children or for medical insurance to ensure all members of the family are covered,” she explains. “They also use the money to buy food that is not available to them, like oil or sugar, to improve their diet.”

Local government role

CRS’ work to end stunting in Rwanda is highly dependent on the commitment of local communities. Fortunately, many communities are on board.

“This program is owned by the local government and local authorities. When we are working with districts, it’s really easy for them to integrate this project into their district development plans to eliminate malnutrition,” says Marie-Noelle. “I think this makes sense to them because we are supporting already existing plans they have made and they think are a priority for their local communities.”

The program has worked for Odette and Deodate. They have made their daughter’s nutrition a priority not only for her first 1,000 days but for the rest of her life.

“I learned how to prepare a balanced diet for my daughter and even myself,” says Deodate. “She is lucky she is growing well and getting good food.”